finishing the #PhD – clean-up to get clearer

It’s the beginning of the end. You’ve done your research. You’ve generated data. You’ve done the analysis. And now … And now you’re about to start writing.

One of the things that can help you with the writing is to – not write. This might sound silly, I know. But it is actually helpful, before you begin on the big task, to get organised. Yes, I know that you’ve been organised all the way through, but it is a good idea to have a hard and critical look at your organisation now. The kind of organisation that worked well through the beginning and middle stages of the PhD doesn’t always do the job for finishing off.

I’ll say it again – it’s productive to conduct a bit of a clean-up right now. You can benefit from an audit. A data reckoning can help you to remember what you have. And you want to be able to find and use the stuff you need when you need it.  So perhaps you could do some compiling and shuffling around to help put things together in the way that you will now need them. 

Re-organising is also about culling. Yes, throwing out. Putting away. Temporarily forgetting about. Trust me, it’s helpful to look at what you have that is germane to your thesis, and what is not. This is the right time to consider parking some of those readings that you haven’t got to yet. There is that bit of data you generated but didn’t quite know where it would fit. And of course there’s all that writing you’ve been doing along the way – ideas, quotations, responses to readings, records of conversations and the like. Ask yourself – are any of these bits of writing particularly useful now, at the end, or did they just help you get to this point?


You may find that you have to make both physical and digital piles of stuff. You may find it helpful to put hard copies, books, papers and artefacts together around themes, or stages of the work, or sites, or primary texts you worked with. Label them so you know what they are without having to rifle through multiple piles and files when you are mid paragraph.  This might mean some reorganisation of your work space. Hanging files, filing cabinet drawers, discrete sections of your bookshelf, divisions on your noticeboard – these can all help you get on top of an unruly set of materials.

And do you need to get your desk-top better sorted? Do you have loads of documents floating about, or a flotilla of folders that need to be renamed or re-jigged? Do you need to resort and update your writing and referencing software so that you can manage the authoring job in front of you? Get it sorted now, rather than when you’re in the middle of writing the big text.

Here is a very beginning list to help you think about what you can do to get yourself ready to write and write and write.

  • What data do you have? You might find it useful to write out a list off types of data. (And your supervisor will find this list useful too.) This list is also an audit document that can go in your thesis. Do you have any data for the ‘cutting room floor’ Take a deep breath and put it in a separate non-thesis file – you can easily retrieve it if it turns out you need it.
  • What do you have already written? What chunks of material have you written so far that might form the basis of pieces of the thesis text? They will most likely need to be revised, but they are useful starting points. Do you have any ‘holding text’ – that is, material that already know has to be re-written but which contains information that will be the basis of a new text?
  • What have you read and what do you still need to read? Are there new texts that you need to consult now, as a result of your analysis? What readings can you now put to one side, knowing that they aren’t useful to this thesis – although they might be useful at another time?
  • What goes with what? Can you group together writings, data analysis and readings in ways that signal some of the things that are going to matter to your thesis argument?Can you create chunks or themes of materials that are going to form the basis of some chunks of your text, perhaps even chapters?

Once you have assessed and sorted what you have collected and generated in the previous years you are in much better shape to approach the big task of composing the dissertation.

Do you have other clean-up tips to share?

(Photo credit – Helen Harrop, Flickr Commons)

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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5 Responses to finishing the #PhD – clean-up to get clearer

  1. Lisa Vinnicombe says:

    Thanks – good tips.
    I have a rather scrappy approach but it works for me: I have piles of manila folders with articles that are on similar topics inside and a brief description on the front. I also write notes on the front of the articles that reminds me of the key points I want to use, or nice language, or some excellent vocab. I relied too much on my memory for ages but once the pile of articles and books exceeds the space my memory can manage …. need another strategy.
    I also have a blackboard and a whiteboard. That is essential. .


  2. Claudia says:

    great advice, thank you!


  3. James Regan says:

    I have found it helpful to maintain a visual inventory of all my references relating to my dissertation. I categorized references using the tagging capabilities that I believe are available in most bibliographic software packages. The package that I use is Bookends, and it allowed me to create “smart groups” that automatically arranged references based on a project/topic-specific keyword. I used very few keywords, but I combined them with simple color labels, such as green (primary source), blue (secondary source), and so on, which I was also able to do within the software. For example, I created a smart group called Introduction (keyword) with a blue label (secondary source). It has also been flexible enough to accommodate changes to the organization as they occurred.

    After I had categorized all my references, I used WorkFlowy, an online outliner, to track the status of all my references. I did this quickly by exporting the “smart groups” that I created in Bookends and importing them into WorkFlowy. It took me about five minutes to import about 500 references. The combination of Bookends and Workflowy serve as a real time saver for me.

    Finally, I also began scheduling weekly review/status meeting with myself, every Friday. It’s a meeting that I do not miss:-).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Alan Mackie says:

    This is great Pat, thanks very much. I’m about two months away from this stage and have been thinking exactly this over. I’ve so much stuff to try and organise and just thinking about trying to synthesise it all brings me out in a cold sweat. I’ve actually planned to set aside a week or so just to re-read all my notes, scribbles and data to try and make sense of it all. Might take longer, we’ll see.


  5. Pingback: PhD life 101 – Marta E. Cecchinato

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